America Has to Stop Paying Lip Service to STEM

10/21/2015 05:00 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2016
Digital tablet and book on desk in classroom
Digital tablet and book on desk in classroom

Peruse any news or education policy site today, regardless of its political bias, and you'll hear a common narrative: the U.S. is not preparing today's students for tomorrow's jobs. Almost anyone with a public voice in education touts the necessity for further investment into science, technology, engineering, and math, often called STEM. President Obama, Florida Governor Rick Scott, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Bill Gates all have stressed the need for STEM-focused education in the twenty-first century. It seems that this is one of the few issues that is truly bipartisan.

Nevertheless, this overwhelmingly positive STEM support--both rhetorical and financial--is futile if colleges continue to neglect college-level math in their core curricula. What Will They Learn?™ (WWTL), a recent study of over 1,100 colleges and universities released by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, shows that over 40 percent of America's higher education institutions do not require a college-level math course. The rating system of WWTL is based on whether or not a school requires seven core subject areas of its students: composition, literature, intermediate foreign language, U.S. history or government, economics, math and natural science. The sorry math statistic at first glance seems counterintuitive, given how much attention STEM training now receives.

Therein lies the evasiveness, perhaps even duplicity, of so many college curricula.

Most of the colleges surveyed in WWTL have some type of math requirement listed in their general education or core curricular requirements. But when looking at the fine print in college catalogs, one finds there a bevy of exemptions and "soft" math classes that fulfill these requirements. While colleges, government institutions, and private foundations continue to invest financially in STEM, colleges are failing to invest intellectually in a key component of the field: math.

In the catalogs of the 40 percent that do not require college-level math, one instead can find courses like the intermediate-level algebra normally done in high school, personal finance, and math for elementary education. Some of these courses rise only slightly beyond a middle school level of difficulty. That's right--not so very far beyond arithmetic.

WWTL shows that while many of our nation's schools continue to tell parents and students that the education they provide is valuable, the trend is that nationally, core education requirements are becoming all the more lax. How very sad this is, at a time when employers are increasingly complaining about graduates who lack the basic skills to be competitive in the current job market.

A recent Brookings Institution study of youth unemployment confirmed that one of the top complaints employers have of potential hires is "academic skill deficiencies, particularly in math." Parents and students must realize that an exemption or a low-level math requirement may boost one's GPA in the short-run, but it is a disservice in the long-run.

The U.S. can continue to outspend every nation in education and pay lip-service to STEM, but reform will not happen until families and policymakers remind colleges and universities of their responsibility to prepare students, through a robust core curriculum, for a prosperous future rooted in real skills and knowledge.